The sale of electric vehicles (EVs) has more than skyrocketed in recent years. The demand for electric cars, which is the driving force for the exponential increase in sales of EVs, is expected to grow even more. Global sales records for electric vehicles show a continual rise in the purchase of EVs. In 2017, global EV sales were more than 1.2 million units, and this number increased by more than 63% in 2018, with a record of more than 2 million units of electric vehicles sold worldwide.

One of the more prominent and leading manufacturers of electric vehicles, Tesla sold nearly 1 million Tesla electric cars in 2021. Experts have predicted that electric cars will make up 10% of global car sales by 2025, and this number is expected to rise to 58% by 2040. Therefore, it is evident that electric cars are here to stay; they are not leaving the market any time soon. So one must ask: in the movement for sustainability and environmental-friendly decisions, are electric vehicles better for the environment than internal combustion vehicles (also known as gas cars)?

Negative Implications of Electric Vehicles to the Environment

Before one can draw comparisons between electric vehicles and vehicles with internal combustion engines, to determine the better vehicle type for the environment’s good, one must realize and examine the negative contributions of EVs to the environment.

Unlike internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs), electric cars do not use gas as their power source; the primary–and often, sole–power source for an EV is its battery. The battery is where the major complication for EVs arises; battery production for electric vehicles is worse for the environment than the entire production process of a gas car. Why is this the case? Electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries; these are rechargeable batteries found in laptops, computers, mobile phones, and other rechargeable devices.

Lithium-ion batteries are made of minerals and metals such as lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and graphite. Production of EVs mandates the mining of these raw materials. The environmental problems related to the mining of lithium (and other resources used in making lithium-ion batteries) will grow unless the manufacturing process becomes more efficient. For example, lithium is a common factor in lithium-ion batteries, but the mining process for lithium produces lots of greenhouse gases and destroys local ecosystems. The mining of lithium in the Andes mountains in South America leeches huge volumes of water from surrounding areas, causing a decrease in the water supply and less accessible water for local agriculture.

The process of mining

raw materials used in EV batteries and the production of battery packs produce high levels of CO2, and recycling EV batteries could play a massive role in the sustainability of EVs and ensure that EVs achieve carbon neutrality. But the current rate of recycling electric vehicle batteries does not match the number of spare or dumped EV batteries left in landfills to destroy the environment. Another downside of electric vehicles concerning the environment is that fire outages are somewhat likely because of the volatility of elements within lithium-ion batteries. This volatility is increased because of the mass storage of the batteries.

EVs or Gas Cars: Which is Better for the Environment?

The average electric vehicle emits 8 to 10 metric tons of greenhouse gases during production; the bigger the battery, the more CO2 it takes to produce. Smaller batteries in smaller EVs may emit as little as two metric tons of greenhouse gases during production, but larger EVs with long-range batteries may emit as much as 17 metric tons of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, the production of an internal combustion vehicle produces an average of 7 metric tons of CO2 (this is from the mining of ore for steel to the moment the car rolls off the assembly line).

The volume of emissions is less in gas cars because gas cars do not use lithium, cobalt, and other resources that cause such high emissions. After the gas car leaves the assembly line, it emits an average of 5.2 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, but that is if the vehicle drives the national (American) average of 11,800 miles per year. At about two metric tons per year, the national average for EV emissions is less than that of gas cars. The average electric vehicle will emit 28 metric tons of greenhouse gases over its lifespan; this is less than half of the emission by gas cars. Over the lifespan of an average gas car, it is responsible for about 57 metric tons of CO2; 7 for production, and 50 for emission of greenhouse gases.

Why do gas cars emit this many greenhouse gases? Like lithium, gasoline is mined. Gasoline is obtained from refined crude oil, and crude oil extraction begins with drilling into the earth (on land or the ocean floor). After crude oil is mined, it is refined into gasoline and other petroleum products such as jet fuel, petroleum jelly, and plastic, releasing tons of greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide. Around the world, close to 95 million barrels of oil are produced every day. Oil refinement is responsible for 767 million tons of CO2 every day, and oil refineries release 280 billion metric tons of CO2 in a year. The average gas car in the US consumes about 500 gallons of gas per year.

Although EVs emit more CO2 during production, they more than make up for it by not having any emissions during use. This means that the average electric vehicle becomes more efficient than a gas car between 6 months to 2 years of driving it. Even the least efficient electric vehicle with the least efficient power source (for example, a coal plant) will be more efficient for the environment than the most efficient gas engine after a certain period. Electric vehicles in states with access to cleaner electricity like windmills, solar power, and hydroelectric power plants are significantly more efficient than electric vehicles in states without.

Therefore, electric vehicles are more harmful than internal combustion vehicles during production, but they make up for their negative contribution to the environment by emitting zero greenhouse gases after production. On the other hand, gas cars produce emissions during and after production, so one can argue that electric vehicles are better for the environment.

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Pavlo Prannyk
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